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What is the CEFR?

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR or CEF) is an international standard describing the language ability of learners at different stages of their learning. These descriptors can be used to set clear targets for achievements within language learning, to help define language proficiency levels and to interpret language qualifications.

The CEFR is language-neutral, which means that it can be applied to any foreign language learning situation.

The CEFR was originally designed as a comprehensive reference tool to promote educational transparency, and to allow movement between countries for work or study within the European Union. Since its publication in 2001, the CEFR has been translated into 40 languages, and its use has spread outside Europe, from Asia to Latin America, as an aid to defining levels for learning, teaching, and assessment. This also means that employers and educational institutions can easily compare CEFR qualifications to other exams in their home country.

Language ability is described on a six-point scale, with A1 for beginners being the lowest, and C2 for those who have mastered a language being the highest.

Learners are classified in three distinct groups:

  • The Basic User (levels A1 and A2)
  • The Independent User (levels B1 and B2)
  • The Proficient User (levels C1 and C2)

As these titles suggest, learners develop not just in terms of the actual language they have available, but also in terms of their strategies for communicating. For example, in moving from basic to independent, learners will gain compensation strategies, enabling them to make the most of the language they already know; proficient learners will be operating at a higher level, where they can be both fluent and spontaneous, and able to draw on exactly the language they need for a specific situation.

The CEFR describes what learners can do across five language skills:

  • Spoken Interaction
  • Spoken Production
  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Writing

For all five skills at each level, there are sets of detailed ‘Can Do’ statements. By dividing Speaking into two, the CEFR focuses both on the learner's production and their ability to take part in conversations and discussions. For example, under Spoken Interaction, there is information about Turn-taking: a Basic A2 learner can use simple techniques to start, maintain, or end a short conversation, whereas a proficient C1 learner can select a suitable phrase to preface their remarks appropriately in order to the get the floor, or to gain time and keep the floor whilst thinking.

Outside of the academic or professional realm, CEFR levels are not as important, as they are really only necessary if you want to define where you're at with your target language. In a more casual language-learning environment, or when you're just learning languages because you enjoy them, then CEFR levels are just another tool to help with your language learning.

Cambridge Assessment English was involved in the development of the CEFR, and continues to work towards its future development through projects such as SurveyLang and English Profile.


What does the CEFR mean for English?

The chart below provides a quick reference of the CEFR levels in English.

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The diagram below shows Cambridge Assessment English's exams on the CEFR.

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English Profile is a long-term program of research that extends the CEFR. Its main aim is to deliver the CEFR for English, producing Reference Level Descriptors––practical descriptions of how learners can be expected to use English at each level of the CEFR.